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Chieftains, guests come out blazing

By Stephen Cooke – Halifax Herald

MacIsaac, Lamond, MacGillivrays, Pilatzkes at their best

IF YOU WANTED a good luck charm to bless the second decade of the
Celtic Colours International Festival, who better to perform the honour
than the original ambassadors of traditional Irish music, the
Chieftains?

And so it was at the opening gala concert for the 11th
instalment of Celtic Colours on Friday night in Port Hawkesbury, with a
handshake across the Atlantic between thelegendary Celtic ensemble and
some of the finest musical talent Cape Breton has to offer.

Lt.-Gov.
Mayann Francis and Premier Rodney MacDonald did the official honours
launching the 10-day ceilidh. The former was especially glowing in her
praise of the festival, as a native of Whitney Pier, extending a
welcome to “those who come to Nova Scotia for a wonderful celebration .
. . I hope your visit to this bewitching, mystical island will be a
wonderful one, especially at such an appropriate time to visit this
colourful region.”

Even though the leaves might not be at
their peak yet, in unseasonably warm weather, the Chieftains brought
plenty of colour to the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, setting the stage
aflame with a set of blazing reels, led by piper Paddy Moloney,
visually augmented by the impressive footwork of the group’s longtime
dancer Cara Butler and the Ottawa River Valley-style clogging of
brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke.

Chieftains’ fiddler Sean
Keane and flautist Matt Molloy were not present for the show, but there
were plenty of chairs filled onstage, with B.C. fiddler and
accordionist Adrian Dolan, Irish Midlands harpist Triona Marshall, and
longtime vocalist and bodhran player Kevin Conneff — who sang a
plaintive a cappella Flower of Magherally — and country/bluegrass
guitarist Jeff White, who led a medley that blended the Irish folk tune
Morning Dew with Wabash Cannonball and Cotton Eyed Joe. Limber dancer
Butler added to the set with some impressive high kicks that could
knock the cotton out of Joe’s eyes.

Another member who
couldn’t be present was the late harpist Derek Bell (or Derek “Ding
Dong” Bell as Moloney likes to call him), but he was remembered with
the stirring Women of Ireland, the song they performed for Stanley
Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon. The combination of Marshall’s harp and
Moloney’s elegiac tin whistle melody managed to be sweet and haunting
at the same time (and explains why the film won an Oscar for its music).

The
first of the Chieftains guests, Creignish fiddler Wendy MacIsaac,
started off slowly with an air that highlighted her rich, earthy tone,
but soon it was time to “get into the dirty stuff with a blast of
strathspeys and reels” accompanied by Patrick Gillis on guitar and “my
favourite cousin” Ashley MacIsaac on keyboards. True to form, the set
was brisk and tuneful, earning the compliment, “That’ll make you
dance!” from Moloney.

MacGillivray siblings Fiona and
Ciaran, formerly of the Cottars, are frequent tour guests of the
Chieftains, and it’s not hard to see why. Fiona keeps growing in
strength and feeling as a singer, demonstrated on the love song
Ballinderry, while a set of sprightly Irish jigs demonstrated how they
click as musicians with Ciaran’s bouzouki and Fiona’s tin whistle
chiming together with a bright and chipper tone.

After
intermission, Jeff White led the Chieftains in the Appalachian folk
tune Shady Grove, which sounded a lot like the old English folk tune
Matty Grove, made famous by Fairport Convention. To further the
connection, the song blended into a fiddle and accordion breakdown
called the Kelly Reels, illustrating the ties between Irish and
country/bluegrass music explored on Chieftains albums like Another
Country and Down the Old Plank Road.

Moloney introduced
Glendale singer Mary Jane Lamond as a performer who sings “in the true
tongue of Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and it’s so beautiful.” However, Lamond
joked that she remembered when she toured the U.S. with the Chieftains,
and Moloney would say, “She sings this funny kind of Gaelic.”

“Back
then we played to audiences that were largely Irish-American, but now
the tables have turned, Paddy,” she grinned, to the delight of the Cape
Breton audience.

Lamond’s dry wit was in evidence with her
choice of material as well, singing a stark lament about a Scottish
widow whose family was killed by Irish mercenaries after the 1645
Battle of Inverlochy. “It seemed appropriate to sing it here,” she
winked, and proceeded to do so with great beauty and feeling.

Harpist
Marshall also brought beauty to the stage with her rendition of
Tullochgorum, plucking notes as brightly coloured as stained glass
while rocking back and forth to the tune’s tricky rhythms.

Apparently
Ashley MacIsaac also planned to play Tullochgorum in his set — his
rendition is notoriously powerful — but opted instead to start with a
Gypsy ballad which he dedicated to the Lieutenant Governor. “I was
going to dedicate it to Rodney, but I’ve given plenty of support to
that Tory,” quipped the Mohawked fiddler.

True to form,
MacIsaac wrenched plenty of pathos out of the piece, prompting Moloney
to pull out a handkerchief and wipe away mock tears, sighing, “Oh, he’s
a grand fiddler,” before switching gears into a driving set of jigs and
reels with the Chieftains joining in. By the end of it, MacIsaac’s
fingers were flying at hummingbird speed, with not a missed note to be
heard.

For the finale, Moloney called all the musicians to
the stage, including another former Cottar, Rose MacKenzie, for a final
fiddle blowout, followed by the jaw-dropping footwork of the Pilatzkes,
whose legs moved like they had Jello in their joints. I wonder how
those moves would go over at a dance at the West Mabou Hall?

After
the final ovation, the hardcore Celtic fans piled into their cars and
tore up Highway 105 to the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s for the Festival
Club’s after-hours entertainment, and it was well worth the trip.

The
late-night session included the cream of Cape Breton fiddling —
including Howie MacDonald and guitarist Dave MacIsaac, Dwayne Cote and
Andrea Beaton — plus the most rocking set the Festival Club has ever
seen, courtesy of Sydney’s Tom Fun Orchestra, which blew the doors off
with some intense folk ’n’ roll.

Copyright © 2007 The Halifax Herald

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